'Death of England: Closing Time' review – Sharon Duncan-Brewster is extraordinary in this wide-ranging national portrait

Read our three-star review of the concluding chapter Death of England: Closing Time, now in performances at the National Theatre to 11 November.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

It’s closing time, indeed, for Death of England, the indispensable stage triptych of plays about modern-day Britain that has survived a pandemic, illness, and various other hurdles to catapult us toward an understanding of life as it exists for so many on the British frontline.

The co-authors throughout have been Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, long-established and invaluable separate theatrical presences who have converged on a venture of rare ambition with this project, first embarked upon in 2014.

Their first play, starring Rafe Spall, premiered just weeks prior to the first (and longest) Covid-induced shutdown, whilst the second, with Michael Balogun stepping in for Giles Terera, closed on its November 2020 opening night, a further casualty of – you guessed it – Covid. Those two solo plays, each a tour de force for their performers, were followed a year later by a TV amalgam, Death of England: Face to Face.

And here we are with Closing Time, a stage two-hander that introduces into the mix the women whom we've heard so much of before. This iteration, too, overcame adversity on the way to its (delayed) opening. An indisposed co-star Jo Martin was replaced at the last minute by Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Roz in the Netflix series Sex Education), whose command of the material – even with script in hand – is not just evident but, in fact, extraordinary.

Indeed, if one didn’t know the backstory to director Dyer’s staging, you might guess Duncan-Brewster had been living with it for months. One intends no disrespect to her eloquently fiery colleague Hayley Squires to argue for Duncan-Brewster’s appearance here as one of the occasions of the year. I first admired this actress in a Clean Break two-hander, Yard Gal, two decades ago, and she’s only enlarged her talent in the years since.

The play itself is overlong and needs shaping: surely this is at heart a brisk, bristling one-act. But the two women, whether appearing singly or together, exert a galvanic grip on the audience that doesn’t let up, no matter their positioning on the set by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ in the shape of a St George’s Cross from which they at times descend into the audience for some awkward breaking of the fourth wall that seems to be a National Theatre motif these days.

We’ve previously met Michael, the white son of an (unseen) racist dad, and best friend to the Black, Brexit-friendly Delroy. The kick here comes from viewing these two lads through the fresh lens of Michael’s sister, Carly (Squires), who is also Delroy’s girlfriend and mother to their child, called (yes) Meghan.

The older generation is given assured if often-skeptical shape via Duncan-Brewster's formidable Denise, Delroy’s mum, an anti-vaxxer mourning the closure of the West Indian cafe whose cooking utensils she is packing away at the show's start.

The talk is of rising energy bills and Ant & Dec, a pinprick in the direction of the ever-ubiquitous Gail’s cafes one minute, “food and football” as the Englishman’s common ground the next: Leyton Orient is the team of choice. Details are tellingly chosen, be they the behaviour of Millwall fans on a 58 bus or the primacy of Roxy Music’s “Avalon” in one’s cultural (not to mention libidinous) coming of age.

The play meanders just when it might more profitably go in for the kill, but both actresses seize their set-pieces with a vigour that is quite astonishing to behold.

Carly, we learn, has become an unwanted internet sensation via some hen night hijinks here brought to ferociously vivid life, and Duncan-Brewster conjoins swagger and bravado in Denise's riveting takedown of the recent coronation.

With that comes a reminder that multicultural England demands multiple viewpoints, and that it is both the job and the joy of the theatre to give those perspectives pride of place, for which achievement (among many) Death of England deserve a bow.

Death of England: Closing Time is at the National Theatre through 11 November.

Photo credit: Death of England: Closing Time (Photo by Feruza Afewerki)

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